Once again I got caught using the “A” word when describing a wine and the person went running to the hills and I couldn’t get her back. Acid. Of all the things one finds in a wine, nothing is more important than acid. Yet I imagine by the reactions of many that the word inspires notions of sucking on a mouth-puckering, unripe lemon.
Acid is so important in a wine that many wines you all drink have extra acid added to them. If you are a lover of California cabs or chardonnays, I bet you they have been “adjusted.” But even in cooler growing areas like the Niagara, winemakers will pump up the acidity a bit in warm vintages.
Acid is good.
All fruit has it, even wine grapes, except they have higher concentrations of a different type of acid. Most fruits have high levels of either citric or malic acid. Wine grapes are different: they can have high levels of malic acid alongside a relatively tasteless acid called tartaric.
So while tartaric acid acts as a foundation for “freshness” in a wine, when the malic acid level is too high, the wine can taste of green apples. In most cases, winemakers try to get rid of malic acid by having the wine go through a secondary fermentation called malolactic fermentation (malo). The name suggests what happens as malic acid is transformed into lactic acid — think of cheese and yogurt as food with high levels of lactic acid.
Aside from creating a “creamier” texture in the wine, it’s important for wines to go through this procedure because malic acid can be a source of instability in a wine, causing bad bacteria to grow and spoil the wine. All red wines go through this as do many whites, though as the climate warms around the world, grapes are getting riper, which is causing acid levels to decline. So some winemakers choose to not do “malo” so they don’t have to add acid.
So why the fear? When I talk to someone who doesn’t like a wine I have served them, my first question is always “too much acidity for you?”
I used to follow up with “what type of wines do you normally drink?” Almost always they are red wines with a little extra sugar. Sugar is the acid killer. For these folks, I just shrug my shoulders and recommend a merlot or a grenache, wines that naturally have lower acidities and a creamier texture but without the added sugar.
For the rest of you, when you hear phrases like “great acids” or “vibrant acidity,” let words like “refreshing, fresh, invigorating” or “cooling” come to mind. Winemakers the world over are looking for more of it in their wines, whether it is real or added afterward. It truly is the building block of wine.